New York Times foreign correspondent Rukmini Callimachi took students and community members to the front lines of the war against the Islamic State group (ISIS), revealing exclusive developments about the terrorist organization to the crowd of 300 gathered last week at Benedictine University.
Only hours coming off a red-eye flight from Cairo, Callimachi expounded on new details gleaned from her embedded reporting in Mosul, one of the last remaining ISIS strongholds in Iraq, and an area that has faced stiff resistance since the launch of a U.S.-backed Iraqi offensive last October.
“I wanted to ask you, ‘Where do you think ISIS gets their weapons?’” Callimachi asked the audience. “They grabbed some of their hardware from Mosul in 2014 when the city fell and when they overpowered the Iraqi Army and raided their armory. They got thousands of armored personnel carriers and AK-47s, but guess what – most of that equipment has been destroyed in airstrikes.
“Here’s the shocking thing. Over the past three years, ISIS has become so sophisticated in how they fight that in some ways they are starting to resemble a conventional army. And one of the things they are doing is they are now manufacturing many of their own weapons.”
Callimachi explained other tactics that have helped prolong ISIS’s occupation of Mosul, showing the audience pictures of commercially sold drones used as weapons, leaflets warning people not to collaborate with Iraqi forces and a network of tunnels the group has constructed to hide from military surveillance.
Callimachi, a two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist and a former Daily Herald reporter from 2001-03, was invited to Benedictine as part of the University’s Center for Civic Leadership (CCL) lecture series. Every year the CCL invites prominent figures to speak on topics of public importance and this year has focused on the issue of terrorism and international and national security.
Over the course of her career, Callimachi has covered 20 foreign countries and exposed the inner workings of terrorist organizations. Her George Polk Award-winning series, “Underwriting Jihad,” revealed that ransoms paid by European governments had become one of the main sources of funding for al-Qaida. Her other series, “The Al-Qaida Papers,” uncovered internal procedures of the extremist organization, including their expense reporting process and correspondence from the man considered to be the general manager of the terrorist network.
Today, there are as many as 100,000 Iraqi troops engaged in Mosul. While lesser known, the highest estimate for the number of ISIS fighters borders on 10,000, Callimachi said.
“So this is a fight of 10 to 1, and yet it’s still taking our allies months and months to take back this city from ISIS,” Callimachi said. “Part of the reason why it’s taking so long is that the Iraqi Army is trying to preserve civilian life. So they can’t indiscriminately bomb. But that’s only part of the story. The other part is that ISIS has become a formidable enemy.”
In her presentation, Callimachi showed the audience images of recovered ISIS documents supporting the existence of training camps for new recruits and other more advanced services it has organized to support its population, such as a police force and court system.
“We are used to thinking of ISIS as the ultimate boogeyman,” Callimachi said. “There is no denying their brutality and the horrific things they have done, but what we miss when we only focus on their atrocities is the very real support they have garnered from people in Iraq and Syria, and to our peril, from their followers in the west.
“We, not just America – but really the entire world, underestimated the Islamic State,” she said. “We underestimated their ability to threaten us and to project their brand of terror into our own communities, and we also underestimated and refused to believe what they told us about hemselves.”
In a Q&A session following her presentation, Callimachi discussed the writing process and some of the very real dangers involved in the work of an embedded reporter in a conflict zone. The assignment requires extensive planning and security details which may include a convoy of special forces operatives and translators.
Among several precarious incidents, Callimachi cited a time when she was able to persuade a security advisor to stop for lunch in a more progressive area of Mosul. Three days after their meal, she learned the restaurant was destroyed by a suicide bomber.
“This has happened several times to me,” Callimachi said. “I’ll see a place and the place looks fine, but ISIS is still right there not far away.”
ISIS has also threatened her life directly on several occasions, she said.
Paulina Piasecki, a junior Political Science and English Language and Literature major, said she was awed by the amount of courage Callimachi displayed in order to get the story.
“The fact that she reports in such depth about ISIS must put her at risk, making her actions truly remarkable in a time where there is such a misrepresentation of the role of media in our society,” Piasecki said. “To see such a strong female presence in the world of journalism is inspiring. Her strength should inspire others, like it does me, to not only support other women attempting to shatter the glass ceiling, but to break it ourselves.”
“Having the opportunity to hear her relay information in real time before some of this information is published is pretty amazing, and now I’m going to be looking for that story” said Quentin Florido, a senior Political Science major.
The University’s CCL lecture series continues with “National Security and Global Terrorism in the 21st Century” featuring Robert “Bob” Baer, author and former CIA officer at 7:00 p.m. on Thursday, April 27, in the Goodwin Hall Auditorium.
The lecture is free and open to the public. For more information, go to ben.edu/cclspeakers.